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Keep your cool ...

No matter what our age, we're all susceptible to heat exhaustion or the more severe heat stroke during the summer months. However, older adults are at particularly high risk, and it isn't just being outside for a sustained period of time on a hot day that makes us vulnerable. In fact, simply sitting in a hot apartment during the summer can cause you to overheat, particularly if you take medications that affect hydration and body temperature.


Seniors are especially vulnerable to temperature extremes because the body's ability to keep cool can be compromised as we age. The body naturally responds to rising temperatures by dilating blood vessels in the skin, which draws heat from inside the body to the skin's surface, and by perspiring more, which cools us as that sweat evaporates. However, as we get older, the ability to perspire can diminish and blood vessels don't dilate as efficiently. Chronic underlying health conditions (such as heart, lung and/ or kidney diseases, and poor circulation) can compound this, as can the medications used to treat these conditions. For example, diuretics and other blood pressure drugs can cause dehydration, and some older antidepressants, like Elavil and Tofranil, can raise body temperature while sedating you so that you may not be aware of feeling too hot. Antihistamines, used to treat allergies, can reduce the production of sweat.

It's vital that you take steps to cool down when the mercury rises, to avoid heat fatigue and exhaustion, heat syncope (sudden dizziness), heat cramps, and heat stroke (when the body temperature rises above 104 degrees Fahrenheit). As much as you can, stay indoors in an air-conditioned environment on very hot and humid days, and cover windows that are in direct sunlight by keeping curtains or shades drawn. If you don't have air conditioning or can't afford to run it constantly, take advantage of cooler locales, such as your local senior center, library or mall.

If you do need to go out when it's hot, dress in light-colored loose clothing and avoid extended periods of sun exposure. Get exercise first thing in the morning, or in the evening, when it's cooler. Drinking a lot of fluids is also critical. Stick to clear drinks (avoid caffeinated beverages and alcohol, as these can dehydrate you).

If you think you may be suffering from a heat-related condition (signs include headaches, dehydration, weakness, dizziness, fainting, and muscle cramps), cool yourself down by going indoors, preferably to a room with a fan, drinking plenty of water, and applying a cool, wet cloth to areas where the blood circulates close to the skin surface, such as the wrist, neck, armpit and groin. Be aware that a rapid pulse, severe headache, dizziness, nausea, confusion, and hot skin with the absence of sweat can indicate that you have heat stroke. This is a medical emergency, so call 911.

These precautions can significantly reduce your risk of illness and ensure that your summer is a relaxing, fun time of year, when you can work on your garden, golf game, and other outdoor pursuits.

By Rosanne M. Leipzig, MD, PhD Editor-in-Chief

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Title Annotation:FROM THE EDITOR
Author:Leipzig, Rosanne M.
Publication:Focus on Healthy Aging
Date:Aug 1, 2011
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